• Hesh Meister

Washing Away the SOAP

So. I wanted to write about SOAP — the vaunted Sound Of Asbury Park — and the monument thereto, dedicated on this day 15 years ago, December 9, 2006.


SOAP monument, Asbury Park, NJ.

I suppose that what I’m trying to do with my Soul In Exile opus can be considered in the realm of SOAP, or at least influenced by it, if you strictly look at (or listen to) the music. Yes, there are other influences, to be sure — the Jewish influence is heavily felt, particularly in the song “Town Full of Self-Described Saints,” and California creeps in on “Exile Detour.” However, the chiefest influence has to be the Sound Of Asbury Park, that whole R&B-inflected, late-60s, early-70s vibe as brought to the forefront by Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. I’ll make no bones about it; it IS a big influence, and all the deceased pundits who resented the fact that SOAP was THE biggest pop-cultural export of the place can roll over in their graves as much as they want, but nothing can change it.


I embraced this Sound. After my life-changing experience of November 1978 that took place around Asbury Park, I adopted the sound as mine: “I made this town mine, I made it all my own,” as I sang in “Jersey Shore Baby.” Thus, a kid growing up in a beach town some 40 miles to the northeast, and later stranded on the other side of the planet in a world not of his own making, fell in love with SOAP — though he didn’t know of that acronym at the time — and made it his soundtrack. Its influence pervaded my songwriting no matter where I was, whether in Israel, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, back in Long Beach, or anywhere in New Jersey. It was the soundtrack of my life and brought light to illuminate it when the darkness seemed to have fallen all around me: in the army, when a dear friend from the Shore died, being in high school, being in Boston, losing my first wife and daughter to divorce. The music was there for me and kept me going. How can I forget that time “Trapped Again” oozed out of the radio in Rehovot, summer 1981, at a time when few people in the country even knew who Southside Johnny was? It was nothing less than a sign from G-d that I should hold on to what I believe in and not lose it.


So what happened in the ensuing years? Everyone got older and scattered throughout the world. The music changed. Bruce’s star rose, fell, shined, dimmed, but never burned out. Southside’s never quite rose beyond the Shore and his hardcore following, though he’s made a lot of albums over the years. And me, well, I came to the Shore in 1990 and joined the organization that bore the sound’s acronym — SOAP, the Society Of Associated Performers. At first it was exciting — an organization dedicated to preserving and promulgating the sounds and inspiring new generations to make this music in new permutations. I was blown away that I was able to meet and talk to people like Margaret Potter and Big Danny Gallagher, and all the people Bruce wrote about in the liner notes to Southside’s first album.


But then things turned sour real fast. No matter how much they talked about their mission, they ignored or actually stymied any effort to move it forward. I was all but snubbed. Yeah, I was a member and I came to meetings, and people said hi every now and then — but no one was interested in my music or ideas. I was ignored and rejected. Dave Marsh, in his biography Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (practically the bible for me in the summer after I finished high school), says that this gang has bonds “unfathomed and unbreakable by outsiders.” Indeed. This is what prompted me to write the song “Outsider” (which will be part of one of the subsequent Soul In Exile albums), for that’s what I was, an outsider, despite all my intentions and abilities and love for the music. And as much as I wanted to believe that the SOAP scene was different than, say, the San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury scene in the 60s, it all amounted to the same thing — a bunch of aging baby boomers with that sanctimonious, snobby attitude that “if you weren’t there with us as we tried to change the world in the 60s, there’s no way you can be a part of us now. Who do you think you are, anyway, trying to break into our social circle?” That’s what it was like. As a friend of mine, a journalist who covered the scene, put it, “what you have is aging people who never quite made it the first time, trying to [recapture], if you’ll pardon the expression, their glory days.” And that’s exactly what it was. Exactly. Every SOAP meeting became just that — a self-aggrandizing, back-slapping, how-ya-doin’ glory daze. Well, a קַדַחַת on all of them. They didn’t want me; they didn’t want others like me who came to the organization with similar let’s-do-it attitudes; they didn’t want anybody who could actually DO SOMETHING MORE than just socialize and ruminate about how great things were then and how great they might have been. What a bunch of self-serving losers.


The organization eventually collapsed, after the Fred Mertz Experience’s “Summer of Beer” on the bandshell roof, and nothing was done since. Founder Margaret Potter eventually passed away — I’ll grant that she was probably already quite ill during the time I was in the organization, so I can forgive what might have seemed like attitude then — but it didn’t excuse any of the other individuals or the group as a whole. And when Margaret died, any pretention to trying to preserve and promulgate died with her.


Concurrent with that was the whole local scene’s anti-Springsteen backlash, personified by the local clubs and their bookers, and its mouthpiece, a certain journalist and his ominous rumblings of a “world beyond.” They all tried and did their best to kill SOAP dead — the sound and the group. And the damage was done — a whole generation coming up through the clubs influenced by everything beat into their heads by media and tastemakers, EXCEPT for the cultural TREASURE right there in their own backyard. And if anybody even TRIED, they were TRASHED (with several notable exceptions, which go unnamed here). And after the backlash finally subsided, there was the whole triCityNews-fueled “Park Rock” scene, which minimally acknowledged the SOAP influence but held it at arm’s length. Some individuals kept flying the banner, but these were people who were kids in the 60s and not part of the original SOAP crew. I never heard as much as a peep from any of the SOAP folks about these new efforts, but by that time I had fallen out of touch with all of them.


But anyway. A lot of the old timers came back to Asbury Park for the Creators of SOAP monument unveiling and show at the Stone Pony. For all of my kvetching, I wanted to be at that show; I’d have loved to be part of that event, just as an audience member in the back of the room, and enjoy the music even while decrying the overreliance on 12-bar blues patterns and feeling ambivalent because of all the past rejection and attitude by all the people onstage and hobnobbing in the crowd. Alas, the show was sold out, and I didn’t get in.


However, as for a monument … an unveiling? Well — what does one build monuments for? Someone or something DEAD, to preserve its memory. And in the Jewish tradition, an unveiling comes 30 days after burial, bringing closure. So, despite all their pronouncements about this being some sort of steppingstone to the future, this event had all the air of a funeral, a burial, an unveiling of a grave, where the Sounds Of Asbury Park are buried, less than a year after the “world beyond” journopundit died. I say that building a physical monument is not the way to preserve or promulgate this sound for the future — this is a way to bury it, enshrine it, encapsulate it. And that’s exactly what these folks did. One last gasp for the SOAP crowd, all there for each other and for no outsiders. Well — I love the sound, and it continues to inform my work, but I say: Let the old-boy network be buried, and GOOD RIDDANCE! I put out my Soul In Exile opuses, which were the embodiment of the actual sound whether these idiots cared to acknowledge them or not: “And all these fools can try but they can never hope to come near it/In this town full of self-described saints,” as I sang in my song. I came to Asbury Park and the Jersey Shore hoping to find a cultural mecca, and I joined the SOAP organization hoping to find a supportive, creatively nurturing environment; I found neither. What I found was a whole bunch of people out only for themselves. So I took myself out of that toxic scene.


… So yeah. A lot of resentment. The bottom line is, I came to the Shore expecting to be accepted and encouraged, if not as THE next big thing, at least as someone trying to bring the Sounds Of Asbury Park to the next generation, and all I got instead was rejection, ignoring, indifference, snobbery, and snubbery. So as much as I loved and still love the music, I’m glad the scene is buried, and that its gravestone sits right next to Convention Hall.


(Based on a diary entry originally written December 11, 2006.)


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